The Democratic Party Is Such a Mess—What to Do, What to Do?
By Don Hazen, Kali Holloway, Steven Rosenfeld / AlterNet
If you pay any attention to media and politics, you know this is the season for hand-wringing about the future of the Democratic Party.
Pundits and pollsters by the dozens have weighed in on the failures of the party, which resulted in devastating losses to Republicans, affirmed the successes of the GOP’s rampant gerrymandering and continued the legislative and executive dominance across the country by conservatives in many states, some formerly blue ones.
Then there was the election. There are many theories about why Hillary Clinton suffered what for many was an incomprehensible defeat (we offered a list last year). But the super shock of the Democratic debacle at virtually every level of government (not to mention the Supreme Court) has sent everyone desperately seeking answers and solutions to dig out of the immense hole.
This is a serious situation. But we need some perspective. The issues roiling the debate among Democrats aren’t exactly new—how progressive and populist versus how mainstream do nominees have to be to be elected president? How much should the party invest in the base of communities of color, single women and millennials versus how, and how much, should it try to engage white working- and middle-class voters? These are questions and challenges that stretch back decades to the McGovern debacle in 1972, to Jimmy Carter vs. Ted Kennedy in 1980, to Jesse Jackson’s stirring 1980s campaigns for president, to the 1990s and Bill Clinton’s centrist politics and the famous Sister Souljah moment—a pre-Trump telegraphing of support to whites.
The 2016 election reminded us that racism, sexism and creeping authoritarianism are very much with us as a society. How do we grapple in opposition, with a most despised man sitting in the White House?
Interestingly, international politics provides an exciting context for what might happen next in the U.S. Right-wing populism was gaining ground and adherents across Europe, but was successfully beaten back in France, where Emmanuel Macron started a party from scratch and established a newly branded version of center-left French politics with a corporate tint. In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn ran as an unabashed progressive socialist in Britain and pushed back very successfully against the pro-Brexit conservative Theresa May. Echoes of Bernie vs. Hillary? Not a perfect analogy, but some resonance.
So how to make sense of it all? We at AlterNet have taken 10 expert analysts and pundits, with a wide range of perspectives, and offered you a CliffsNotes version of their arguments. We, like you, are trying to get a handle on the options for the future. We have given the writers a grade roughly based on their vision, insight, authority and observations. You may disagree. You can give them your own grade, and perhaps be motivated to follow the link and read their full arguments.
This debate about the future of the Dems is going to rage on for some time. The role of the deeply wounded Democratic Party will be scrutinized and criticized, and the hopes of anti-Trumpers will be invested in the congressional races in 2018. But as you will find, as you read on, there are very big mountains for Democrats to climb to wrest back some control of the federal government from the GOP, and in most states as well.
After reading many articles with a wide range of opinions, we have one observation: It is very easy to see differences, to be critical, to malign the thinking and acting of many of the players—and we do that here as do most of our experts. The much harder part is to establish the common ground, the necessary agreements that will allow a range of opinions to be debated and struggled with. It seems that there are more areas of agreement around health care, war, inequality, climate, and much more, than disagreement. It would be a striking thing if key and diverse Democratic leaders could come forward with a document that says this is what we need. Part of that may be in the Democratic Party platform, and part of it may have to be fine-tuned with Trump in the White House.
Take a look at what we have assembled. Different opinions are represented. Mea culpas are demanded. Data has been crunched. Paths to future success outlined. Yes, Democrats have a major crisis in their laps, but there will be no solutions unless people can put aside their differences, at least temporarily, to find the common ground.
Stanley Greenberg, a pollster and Democratic Party insider, offers a strong economic critique of the inadequacies of the Clinton campaign, along with the failure of Barack Obama’s economic stewardship. He makes the insightful point that the Democrats don’t have a “white working-class problem but rather a ‘working-class problem’ …Democrats have lost support with all working-class voters across the electorate, including minorities, unmarried women and millennials. This decline contributed mightily to the Democrats’ losses in the states and Congress and to the election of Donald Trump.”
Greenberg says a “better performance requires Democrats to embrace dramatically bolder economic policies and to attack a political economy that works for the rich, big corporations, and the cultural elites, but not for average Americans.” He notes, “Bernie Sanders’s ‘revolution’ and attack on big money was much closer to hitting the mark than was Hillary Clinton’s message, and he won millennials and white working-class voters in the primary. It is not surprising that white working-class voters then went for Trump.”
Greenberg places much of the blame for the Dems’ failure on the shoulders of President Obama’s handling of the economy for “insistence on heralding economic progress and the bailout of the irresponsible elites, while ordinary people’s incomes crashed and they continued to struggle financially.” True, “Obama restored the soundness of the financial system… But incomes for most Americans fell during this period and the top 1 percent took all of the income gains of the recovery—a subject that mainstream Democrats barely mentioned and did not fight to address. The president’s consistent economic message was this: The recession has been transformed into a dependable recovery, but the Republicans drove our economy ‘into the ditch’ and are doing everything possible to obstruct our progress. We created 15 million new jobs.” The “mix of heralding ‘progress’ while bailing out those responsible for the crisis and the real crash in incomes for working Americans was a fatal brew for Democrats.”
Greenberg’s Democracy Corps surveys conducted after the debates and shared with the Clinton campaign showed that more attacks on Trump’s temperament and his treatment of women barely moved voters. In contrast, a compelling economic message demanding “an economy for everyone, not just the rich and well-connected… and promising an agenda to ‘rebuild the middle class’ moved unmarried women (including white women), millennials, and white working-class women.” This “showed that Democrats can reach working-class Americans both in our base and well into the swing electorate, including the white working class. It is time to make that challenge task number one.” (DH)
2. Can Democrats Fix the Party? Trump’s victory exposed the party establishment as utterly broken—now Dems hope to rebuild in time for a 2018 comeback, by Tim Dickinson, Rolling Stone, June 12, 2017. Grade: A-
Dickinson’s task, which he accomplishes superbly, is to chart the far-reaching decline of the Party, assess the long odds for any major swing back, and take the measure of Tom Perez, new Democratic National Committee Chairman, and his vision for the future Democratic Party. In terms of Perez, Dickinson is decidedly upbeat.
As he writes, the stakes are huge: “Our republic is in crisis. And the party leaders who run (the DNC) will play an outsize role in determining how the American experiment survives the Donald Trump presidency and a Republican Party that has abandoned patriotism for power.” Paradoxically, after eight years of a very successful presidency, “The Democratic Party is in the worst shape of its modern history. The presidency of Barack Obama papered over the fact that the party was being hollowed out from below. Over Obama’s two terms, Democrats ceded 13 governorships to the GOP and stumbled from controlling six in 10 state legislatures to now barely one-in-three. Across federal and state government, Democrats have lost close to 1,000 seats.”
Responsibility for the party debacle, “rests foremost at the feet of former President Barack Obama. ‘Obama was almost like the anti-Democrat,’ a former DNC chair tells Rolling Stone. ‘The president didn’t care about the Democratic Party.’” Dickinson adds that Obama and his team neglected an essential a ingredient for electoral success, “The care and feeding of the national party, which Democrats had rebuilt during the Bush years with a ‘50-state strategy’ that had empowered Obama with dominant Democratic majorities in Congress… The GOP took full advantage of the president’s disregard for party politics. The Tea Party vaulted Republicans to control of the U.S. House and statehouses across the country in 2010 – putting the party in the driver’s seat for the once-a-decade redrawing of legislative boundaries known as redistricting. The White House mounted no resistance… The Democratic Party finds itself not only powerless in Washington, but with a party infrastructure as battered as the building that houses it. As Tom Perez, the intense new chair of the DNC explains: ‘This is a turnaround job.’”
Dickinson pulls no punches. He also mentions the Democratic Party is very unpopular. Many of us may think the nation is horrified by Trump, but amid anti-Trump resistance, “Democratic favorability ratings have continued to tumble to just 40 percent in a May Gallup poll.” He correctly cites shortcomings that must be addressed. “Clinton’s 3-million-vote popular victory—moot for the Electoral College—should have paid dividends in swing districts. But the electoral machinery of the DCCC had its own troubles. Hampered by poor recruiting, the Democrats lost in 23 districts that Clinton won, including seven in California alone. The party netted just six seats to remain in a two-dozen-seat deficit to Paul Ryan and the House GOP.”
Dickinson reports that Perez seems to understand the challenge and task, even if some of Perez’s quotes seem too optimistic. “Perez brings years of experience wrangling federal bureaucracies to his new job, and seems to relish the task of rebuilding the DNC: ‘I come to this enterprise with immense optimism.’ The ‘turnaround job’ Perez envisions has two components. One is structural. ‘We have redefined our mission,’ he says. ‘We are no longer just here to elect the president, but to elect Democrats up and down the ticket.’ The other is message—restoring trust in a ‘wounded brand.’”
Dickinson gives Perez the benefit of the doubt, but Perez does articulate what must be done to rebuild a party from the ground up: “‘We’re in the infrastructure business,’ Perez says cheerfully. ‘You can’t run successful campaigns over time if you’re not organizing, if you don’t have a voter-protection operation, if you don’t have a robust voter file, if you don’t have a training operation. All of those basic building blocks for success are what we’re trying to do here.” (DH)
3. As Democrats Keep Chasing Trump Voter Waterfalls, Will They Ever Listen to Their Actual Base: Black People? by Lauren Victoria Burke, The Root.com, July 5, 2017. Grade: A
The Democratic Party has spent an inordinate amount of time, money and energy examining what makes Trump supporters tick in an effort to crack the code and win their votes. That’s come at the expense of African-Americans, who, as The Root’s Lauren Victoria Burke notes, are the Democratic Party’s most loyal base. Burke observes that while blacks “voted for [Hillary] Clinton at 93 percent,” voter suppression efforts, the lack of a substantive strategy targeting African-Americans, and the loss of Barack Obama on the ticket meant “blacks stayed home in Michigan and Pennsylvania,” contributing to Clinton’s loss by a mere 80,000 votes in three states.
Yet, the lessons of that election remain lost on Democrats. Burke points out that in Georgia and South Carolina’s recent special elections, Democratic challengers waited until the 11th hour to court black voters. (The Los Angeles Times described the last-minute Atlanta black-voter effort as “scrambling.”) Both of those races took place in deeply red Republican strongholds, but Democrats did themselves no favors by largely ignoring black constituents. The consequence of treating black folks as an afterthought was squandering of money and opportunities that may not be soon to come again.
Burke spoke to senior black politicians whose input continues to be ignored. She notes that one day after a group of black women voters and activists met with the DNC, the largest Democratic PAC focused on the House announced a new effort to engage “white working-class voters.” (Despite the overall black vote drop-off, black women went for Clinton by a higher margin than any other demographic and “were No. 1 in turnout percentage of any voting group.”) Still, Democrats continue to pursue votes from a group Thomas B. Edsall writes is “deeply wary of a pro-government Democratic Party,” and views Dems as “coercive on matters of race”—an issue on which they are anything but progressive.
Burke notes that while Dems may take black voters for granted, the GOP recognizes their value. “Republicans know the numbers and understand that their road to victory includes making it harder for members of the Democratic base to vote,” Burke notes. “Where’s the DNC’s anti-suppression campaign? Where’s the get-out-the-vote effort to target black voters? Where’s the census strategy?” Burke asks. It’s an excellent question. (KH)
4. Bernie, Fix My Party: Why Are Democrats Treating Bernie Sanders as if He’s Their Iyanla Vanzant? by Michael Arceneaux, TheRoot.com, April 21, 2017. Grade: A-
If you don’t know who Iyanla Vanzant is, here’s a quick primer: the Oprah-esque life coach goes around helping people get their ish together on a reality show called “Iyanla: Fix My Life.” As Arceneaux points out, the Democrats seem to view Bernie Sanders as their own personal Iyanla, who can make their party not lose to reality show narcissists again. This thinking fails where it counts.
While Arceneaux spends some time rehashing the primaries to question if Sanders has the support to lead the party (he notes the senator “was 3.7 million votes and hundreds of pledged delegates behind Hillary Clinton”), the most important point he makes is about Sanders’ blind spots. The biggest of these is Sanders’ refusal to acknowledge racial and other resentments that contribute to Republican support, and thus, Democrats’ failures. Arceneaux cites a Kentucky event where Sanders blamed Trump’s win on Dems’ health care misfires, despite the fact that 500,000 Kentuckians were served by Obamacare while Republicans fought it tooth and nail. “If Sanders is to assess why Kentuckians would literally vote against their own well-being, he needs to not simply fault Democrats for not doing a good-enough job talking to the electorate. But no, as he’s shown again and again, he will continue to deny the roles that racism, sexism and xenophobia played in the election.”
Arceneaux acknowledges that Democrats “suck at mobilizing.” But Sanders’ reflexive tendency to pretend that every Democratic loss is a messaging failure—wishing away race, gender and religion as wedge issues the right uses with astonishing skill—isn’t helping. In an increasingly browner and gayer America, Democrats are quibbling over whether they should embrace the diverse coalitions that help it win elections, or go for the “be more racist” tactic. As Arceneaux suggests, that energy could be used to motivate populations that don’t vote but would likely cast ballots for Dems, and to fight voter suppression. “The party should be catering to them, considering that if more of those darker folks had voted, we would have a President Clinton and Bernie would be saying we should primary-challenge her in 2020 (as he suggested with Obama in 2012)… If his advice includes continuing to pacify people actively engaged or complicit in multiple streams of prejudice, he can keep it.” (KH)
5. Back to the Center, Democrats, by Mark Penn and Andrew Stein, New York Times, July 6, 2017. Grade: D-
Mark Penn is the campaign strategist who failed to get Hillary Clinton the Democratic nomination in 2008, and now invests in Republican consulting groups. Andrew Stein was once Manhattan borough president and last September dedicated an entire Wall Street Journal column to expressing why he backed Donald Trump for president. For some reason, the New York Times editorial page thought it was a good idea for these two to share their vision for the Democratic Party. What resulted is a useless, retrograde advice column that wasted 800 words describing directives that could’ve been summed up in three: Just become Republicans.
Penn and Stein suggest that Democrats “move to the center and reject the siren calls of the left” by ditching “identity politics” and “government handouts”; “backing police and tough anti-crime measures” against opioid addicts; embracing “hard work, religion and family”; and ending support for policies “offering more help to undocumented immigrants than to the heartland.” The co-authors even demand Dems “reject socialist ideas,” the kind of empty, lazy, tired advice that sounds like it came from a far-right alarmist.
Penn, who advised Bill Clinton in the 1990s, seems unaware that it’s now 2017 and half the issues he maligns—from trans bathroom bills to expanding the social safety net—are wins for Dems. There are also the demonstrably terrible outcomes of the policies Penn pushes: industry deregulation, escalation of the war on drugs, welfare reform and a lengthy history of ignoring everyone except white voters all had disastrous consequences from which we are, or were until this administration took over, still recovering. Trump and Co. are dragging us backwards on all those fronts. Penn and Stein want the Democrats to help him do it. (KH)
6. What went wrong with the Democratic Party? Three big failures that led to the current debacle, by Sean McElwee, Salon.com, January 8, 2017. Grade: A
McElwee consistently offers incisive political insights, and his pieces are often heavy on numbers and statistical proof. Here, he focuses less on figures, but still provides a pretty good look at the mistakes that got us here, and which should be assiduously avoided moving forward.
There are three key areas where Dems failed, McElwee suggests. First, they focused on “respectability politics” above all, letting Republicans define the optics of the political situation and thus giving the GOP the upper hand. On issues from the right wing’s witch hunt against ACORN to evidence of Trump’s Russia ties pre-election, Dems stood down against Republicans instead of standing up and taking charge of the narrative. The effort to always look like they were on the high road even leads to milquetoast politicking, a problem Republicans aren’t bothered by.
McElwee cites Democrats’ concessions to the GOP in the name of unrequited bipartisanship, and a basic failure to “realize how deep the Republican commitment to opposing their agenda runs.” In other words, endless efforts to play nice with Republicans who never return the favor are useless.
There’s also Dem complacency that kicks in when a member of the party is in the White House. McElwee points to Kathleen Ronayne’s report indicating that during the years Howard Dean led the DNC, “the national party installed and paid several staff members in each state.” Once Obama took office—even as Republicans were working to take over legislatures around the country—Democrats neglected those critical down-ticket races. “State parties began to receive monthly payments of anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000, an amount that varies depending on the year. At some point, the parties have received no money at all.” This led to yet more egregious failures, as noted by The Surge’s Rhodes Cook:
In Alabama, for the first time in the party’s history, Democrats did not run a Senate candidate at all in 2014. In Tennessee, Democratic voters nominated a political unknown for governor who benefitted from a famous cartoon name (Charlie Brown) and a top line on the primary ballot…In Idaho, William Bryk drew 30 percent of the Democratic primary vote for Senate, even though he lived in New York. And in Nevada, the field of Democratic gubernatorial candidates was apparently so weak that a plurality of the party’s primary voters cast their ballots for a line labeled “None of these candidates.”
McElwee points to a slew of other poorly handled Democratic efforts, from “the trucker with no political experience who ran for governor of Mississippi in 2015, or the unemployed army vet facing obscenity charges for showing pornography to a college student who ran against Nikki Haley in South Carolina in 2010.”
Avoiding these pitfalls is good advice, and McElwee is honest about the uphill battle we now face. “Democrats will not inevitably bounce back,” McElwee writes. “Republicans have used their power to suppress votes, crush unions, redraw favorable districts, open the floodgates of money and deter organizing. The Republican advantage in statehouses will feed high-quality candidates into competitive races. They are better funded, and though Democrats won’t happily admit it, better organized.” That’s the bitter pill. But swallowing it is the first step to healing. (KH)
7. What’s Wrong With the Democrats, by Franklin Foer, national correspondent for The Atlantic, July-August 2017. Grade: D-
Foer is one of those Washington-based writers who writes with flair, is endlessly cynical and dismissive, but whose recommendations ultimately defend the establishment he takes to task. His prescription comes down to wishing away Bernie Sanders and all the unruly types he represented and lured in 2016, whose votes accounted for 45 percent of the elected Democratic National Convention delegates. Foer writes that Trump’s election and other “worst-case scenarios,” presumably like complete GOP control of Congress, “are invigorating… a long complacent Democratic Party like nothing in recent history.” Apparently the energy launched by 2016’s nominating season was nothing. He’s correct that the party’s assumptions—America’s diversifying demography, it was Hillary’s turn, Trump would destroy the GOP—proved to be dead wrong. But he calls the Resistance, “leaderless and loud,” which also is plainly wrong.
While he chides Clinton, he does so as a cozy insider. Like many inside the DNC, he blames Trump’s demagoguery, Putin’s interference, Comey’s meddling, and says Clinton failed “her most important political challenge: the need to both celebrate multiculturalism and also [his italics] cushion the backlash against the celebration.” But he offers zip on how the party could revive itself outside of urban epicenters, which happens to be where the Democrats lost in November. When Foer went with pollster Stanley Greenberg (whom he also insults) to Michigan to interview former Democrats who voted for Trump, he said many were unabashedly racists. “To win again,” he said the Dems need to “more directly address the country’ bastions of gloom.” He never says how. His selected savior is New Jersey’s Sen. Corey Booker, a coastal centrist in Clinton’s mode. He concludes, “if the Democrats intend to win elections in 2018, 2020 and beyond, they require a hard-headed realism about the country that they have recently lacked.” That lack, to him, includes dismissing the likes of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. (SR)
8. Rage Against the Democratic Machine: Bernie Sanders Supporters are Taking Over the Democratic Party One State at a Time, by Theo Anderson, In These Times, July 2017. Grade: B-
Anderson, a reporter, cannot be blamed for his editor’s entirely misleading headline. His piece shows how the same grassroots progressives who propelled Sanders (to 45 percent of the DNC delegates) are valiantly trying, but coming up short, to take over state parties in the big blue states he’s writing from. His profile starts in California, where progressive Kimberly Ellis lost to corporate centrist Eric Bauman in a race so close it’s contested. He also looks at Massachusetts and Texas, but only gives one line to the four states where progressives became party chairs: Colorado, Nebraska, Washington and Wyoming.
What’s good about Anderson’s report is featuring progressives who are trying to change the party from the inside. Where he falls short and does a disservice to readers is he does not get beyond predictable cheerleading for Berniecrats and airing known grievances. For example, the California party has a version of super delegates—a system where unelected insiders hold two-thirds of the vote for state chair. He cites that anti-democratic feature, but doesn’t push self-identified liberal Dems to defend why it is even there. Instead, he lets progressives judge and dismiss others with knee-jerky litmus tests—are they resisting corporations and refusing big money? What he’s missing, and what his readers aren’t getting, is an understanding of the party factions that are upholding what they see as political tradition while also resisting change. (SR)
9. It’s My Party: The Democrats struggle to rise from the ashes, by Andrew Cockburn, Washington editor, Harper’s Magazine, July 2017. Grade: A
Andrew Cockburn’s “Letter from Washington” report is a masterful profile of the deep-seated biases, beliefs and consequences of the competing centrist and progressive wings that are shadowing and hobbling the party. He begins by showing how a Clinton-Obama centered party culture—of people who raise big money from corporate sources, spend it on overpriced and ineffective Washington-based consultants and messaging, and have no hesitancy lording over state parties—strong-armed the recent election of Tom Perez as the new DNC chair. He also portrays the grassroots Berniecrat wing as demonstrating it is possible to start winning in red and overlooked states, even if there is little financial support from the party national campaign committees or top donors.
Perhaps the most striking takeaway is how Cockburn repeatedly shows there is “little in the way of self-examination” on both these sides splitting the party, even as Washington-based moneymen and others vainly vie “to be the ‘face of the resistance.’” He quotes one grassroots organizer, Ryan Greenwood of People’s Action, as reassuringly saying that it’s not enough to win symbolic victories but lose races for office. He notes how progressives in Kansas out-maneuvered a staid state party and its preselected candidate for a recent U.S. House race (which the progressive narrowly lost). He also criticizes Jon Ossoff’s belief in data-driven campaigns, which, like the Clinton campaign, also lost. Where this leaves the Dems isn’t clear, but this profile is rich, realistic and filled with observant context. (SR)
10. 7 Bad Ideas Plaguing the Democratic Party, by Les Leopold, AlterNet.org, February 28, 2017. Grade: B
Les Leopold is a strong spokesman for returning the Democratic Party to its working-class roots when unions were strong, management couldn’t get away with taking home all of the profits, and political leaders spoke in blunt and earthy bursts containing truths that could not be denied. In other words, he saw Bernie Sanders as the truest Democrat in the race in 2016, and laments that the party’s establishment wing is more comfortable in posh settings where they mingle with corporate donors, espouse centrism as a way to preserve an inequitable status quo and mostly pay lip service to economic empowerment. His list of seven bad ideas are the truisms that have largely propelled candidates like Hillary Clinton for years: sweep disagreements aside under the banner of unity; take a middle path; talk up but don’t act on deep economic issues; avoid socialist radicals; avoid income inequality; take money from the wealthy; and ignore the white working class.
Leopold correctly says what’s wrong-headed about these notions. But some criticisms miss the mark—not by being incorrect, but by being too narrow to point a way forward. Yes, it’s absurd that traditional Dems want Berniecrats to shut up and get in line. But it isn’t correct to say that only Sanders supporters have the energy and the vision. If that were true, Sanders would have overcome the barriers and objections from those who gave Clinton 55 percent of the elected DNC delegates. The progressives need to persuade centrists to come to their side, just as the centrists must articulate why their agenda should be sustained. Leopold ends by saying the party needs “live discussions in educational settings to open up real dialogue” and invites people to join him. That open-ended suggestion might be the most powerful and necessary ingredient of all—if a deeply divided party is to move ahead with purpose. (SR)